Arguably the worse season in Eli Manning’s long and splendid career came in 2013. That year, he posted his lowest passing yardage total in four years, his lowest completion percentage in five years, threw a league- and career-high 27 interceptions, and threw the lowest number of touchdown passes (18) since he became the team’s fulltime starter. Manning was also sacked a career-high 39 times in 2013.
That spring, the Giants — who also suffered through their worst team record since Manning’s 2004 rookie season — sought to correct Manning’s relatively woeful passing numbers by taking Odell Beckham Jr. with the 12th overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. And after a series of growing pains, including a nagging hamstring injury that sidelined him for the preseason and the first month of the season, Beckham took the NFL by storm with his huge numbers (he averaged a touchdown and better than 100 yards receiving in 12 games that season) and especially with that ridiculous one-handed catch against Dallas in Week 12 of 2014.
As for Manning, with Beckham almost instantly becoming his favorite target (in just 12 games he completed 91 passes to the exciting rookie) his individual numbers returned to form: career highs in completions and completion percentage, second most touchdown passes and yards in his career, and had it not been for a horrific 5-pick game against San Francisco, Manning would have posted the lowest interception totals of his career.
In 2015, with Beckham healthy all season, Manning’s personal totals were even better, recording the second-most yards of his career, tossing a career-high 35 touchdowns, while again completing well over 60 percent of his passes.
But is there a connection between Manning’s resurgence and the arrival of Beckham? From a purely statistical viewpoint, there has to be. Although Victor Cruz, Plaxico Burress and even Steve Smith have posted fine individual seasons in a Giants uniform, Manning has never had a player like Beckham. And the unique skills and craving of the spotlight which Beckham brings to the Giants offense has compensated for some of Manning’s deficiencies.
Manning has always been a risk taker, maybe not to level of Brett Favre, but he certainly doesn’t make as many safe throws as other quarterbacks. He likes to push the ball downfield. Beckham’s ability to go over the middle and go up for jump balls (and come down with them) despite his average height has allowed Manning to complete more of those high-risk, high-reward throws.
So there’s a statistical correlation and a tactical correlation between Beckham’s arrival and Manning’s improvement since, but it’s shortsighted to assume this Manning revival can be attributed simply to one player.
Beckham wasn’t the only addition to the Giants offense following the tumultuous 2013 season. Following the lowest offensive output during the entire Tom Coughlin era (28th in the league in both points and yardage) longtime offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride retired. Ben McAdoo was hired as his replacement that spring and since the creation of the Manning-McAdoo-Beckham triumvirate, the Giants have boasted one of the better offensive attacks in the game.
And as much as Beckham’s off-the-charts talent has aided Manning, it is McAdoo — now the head coach — who is most responsible for Manning’s turnaround. Implementing the passing game McAdoo learned under Mike McCarthy, the Giants are throwing the ball more than ever, nearly 38 times per game since the start of the 2014 season. Getting the ball to their playmakers in space, namely Beckham, is clearly a high priority, and it’s working. That far-quicker release time has also helped Manning avoid sacks and injuries, which are far more common for a 35-year-old quarterback than a 25-year-old quarterback.
Beckham’s arrival, quickly followed by his rise to superstardom, doesn’t suggest Manning is no longer an excellent passer, one who can lead the Giants back to the postseason. But even if he wasn’t the same caliber player that won two Super Bowl MVPs, the Giants offense can continue to be productive. Just look at Manning’s older brother, whose skills diminished in his final two seasons. The Broncos adjusted, and in a way covered up for Peyton’s growing problems with arm strength and consistency by bolstering the run game and getting the ball more often on screens to Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders.
Of course, there is one stark contrast between the 2015 Broncos and the Giants of the last few seasons that has nothing to do with an influx of complementary offensive playmakers that may or may not whitewash an aging quarterback’s decline. Denver’s defense was one of the better units in the league; the Giants defense last year was the worst in team history, finishing third-to-last in yards per game and dead last in point per game.
If the Giants really want to mask any and all flaws with Eli Manning they be better served looking to the other side of the ball.